The U.S. military confirmed a military exercise by Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers over the South China Sea Thursday, a move that prompted Beijing, which illegally claims most of the sea, to remind Washington that it remains “vigilant” before U.S. exercises.
“China always maintains vigilance and effective monitoring of the relevant country’s military activities in the South China Sea,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday. “China’s military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and regional peace and stability.”
The Chinese government typically responds to American exercises in the region rapidly. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including the sovereign territories of Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the waters off the coast of Indonesia.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled last year that China’s claims on the Spratly and Paracel Islands–sovereign territory of Vietnam and the Philippines–were not valid, and China must cease its construction of military facilities in the region. China vowed to ignore the ruling and any other such international legal resolution.
The United States has participated in challenging these illegal territorial claims through a variety of measures, from Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of the territory China claims, and military exercises both unilateral and joint with allied nations in the region.
U.S. Pacific Command described the exercise on Thursday as part of a greater “continuous bomber presence” program, which included the participation of the bombers and the USS Sterett.
According to an extensive report in the Japan Times, the mission lasted ten hours and was launched out of U.S. territory in Guam. The goal of the operation was to improve coordination between the ship and the bombers “by refining joint tactics, techniques and procedures while simultaneously strengthening their ability to seamlessly integrate their operations,” Pacific Command said. The statement explicitly did not refer to the operation as an FONOP.
The report also did not address recent reports suggesting that the Chinese government has continued to expand its military presence in the region. The Pentagon recently submitted a report to Congress detailing advances in the militarizing of the Spratly Island chain.
“China’s Spratly Islands outpost expansion effort is currently focused on building out the land-based capabilities of its three largest outposts–Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs–after completion of its four smaller outposts early in 2016,” the report read, according to the South China Morning Post. “Once all these facilities are complete, China will have the capacity to house up to three regiments of fighters in the Spratly Islands.”
Among the new facilities are 24 “fighter-sized hangars, fixed-weapons positions and other military-grade infrastructure” on the reefs mentioned.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the report. “China pursues the path of peaceful development and a national defense policy. China’s defense development is aimed at safeguarding state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this week, according to the state-run Global Times.
As the report also mentioned potential Chinese expansion into Pakistan, Hua chided the United States and claimed cooperation with the Pakistani government “is not targeted at any third party.”